Archive for June 2010
75 is the twilight of the Gods, and from the vantage point of my tender years, an almost unthinkable expanse of time. Now, young and healthy, a fall down the stairs is something I can jump up and shake off. Yeah boys, I’m ok. Toss me another beer so I don’t feel the bruises. Life is beautiful when you’re young, ain’t it?
But for old John Walton, a fall down the stairs could be the end of it all. Maybe not the final shuffle off this mortal coil, but near enough. It could break his hip, leaving him writhing in pain and deeper in debt than you can imagine. Or maybe you can. I hope to God you can’t though. It could be that final little push that sends him into the home. Not one of those nice retirement centers in Florida where you play shuffleboard and grab-ass with that cute septuagenarian in 213. The other kind, the kind not bad enough to rate a Barbra Walters special, but bad enough in its own way. The kind that smell like shit and Pine-Sol, where when your kids come to visit, all you can do is beg them please. Please get me out of here. Please take me home.
And you’ll discover that this child, this child that your world turned on-still turns on- this child that once you held, this child whose “please” could bring you to your knees; will look at you and say, simply: “no.” If you are lucky, if you have perhaps earned some last smidge of good karma, there will be tears in his eyes. At least for a while. And there may even be an explanation, and a faint promise of next year. The sort of promise easily made and easily broken. The little papercut lies we tell ourselves to sleep at night. And one day they’ll get a call from a 3d shift nurse at 3AM that you are gone, telling them that you went quietly. And it may even be true, for there isn’t enough left in you to put up much of a rage at the end.
This is the world of many, many millions. Probably one or two people you know, or parents of people you know live like this. There probably is, somewhere out there, a John Walton who lives this fear, or something close. Walton is an old name. A hill-country name. They had a TV show about a family named Walton, and ol’ Sam Walton made himself richer than God selling poor white trash cheap Chinese trash. John isn’t one of those Walton’s. He’s just a tired old man, with the wide face and hands of his people,
But then again, what does this have to do with the Empire? Oh sure, John might have humped a pack in Korea, maybe even the early years of ‘Nam, if he stayed in long enough. He might have been a grunt for the Empire once upon a time. But that was long ago, if, indeed, it ever happened. More likely, John is one of that middle generation of history that emerged, phoenix-like, from the wreck of the world that was World War Deuce. Too young to be a hero at Omaha, or in the blue skies of the Pacific, and too old to head west and drop acid. Maybe, if he’d been in New York, he would’ve wound up in one of the little backstreet cafes around 1956 and heard a young buck named Jack talk about America. But he wasn’t. He was in Arkansas.
And John fixes cars. He fixes them real good, too. And he made his living underneath a million chassis, has drained enough oil to fill the Gulf of Mexico, and he can diagnose every rattle and grind with a surgeons easy grace.
He is, in a word, a damn good mechanic. And he worked for many years on fine American cars, and then he worked in his old age on fine Japanese cars. And he admitted, begrudgingly, that the Japs made some damn fine engines, because he was a craftsman, and a craftsman is honest. Men who do a certain work for many years find themselves irrevocably shaped and fashioned by that work, and those who master their work find in it some mastery of themselves. And as wood and metal and wire are honest things, to work in them for years will bend a man towards honesty, and he cannot bring himself to lie when he sees his craft done with grace and elegance.
I tell you all these things because I want you to understand John Walton. He hasn’t read anything except newspaper headlines and the Kelly Blue Book since 1985. He has never heard of Keats or Chomsky, and is vaguely aware that there was a man named William Shakespeare. If pressed, he might remember that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, from a high school class he took when Roosevelt was in power. He does not know calculus, nor can he tread the arcane paths of history. He believes that George Washington cut down a cherry tree because he learned this as a boy and has never been corrected. He is not stupid. He may seem so to you at first glance, this tall man with the soft Ozark drawl and missing teeth, but he is not.
He is the man that fixes your car. A hundred million like him till the land that feeds you. Another ten million work on your refrigerators and keep your electricity flowing, and a million other jobs you haven’t dreamed, but without which your life would be a living hell.
And they get very little. John here worked, man and boy, from the time he was 15 to the time he was 65. And even after those 50 years of sweat and toil were done, he worked odd jobs to bring in money, and because he is not the sort of man who can simply lie idle on the couch and watch the game week in and week out.
And he loves America. He loves America as you have perhaps not loved anything in your life. His love for this country, and its empire, is simple, honest, and yes, unquestioning. He isn’t particularly fond of Toby Keith, and there is a nasty edge to much modern patriotism that confuses him, but he votes Republican because he remembers Ike, and he believes that a man who works hard and doesn’t complain can get ahead in the world. And because he’s been too busy working for sixty years to question the truth of that, he never thought to reconcile his own long, grinding near-poverty and years of labor with the truth or untruth of that belief.
But now he is old and alone, and is dying, and the world slips away a little at a time, because there is nothing to hold onto in this place but sticky off brand linoleum and shit brown walls. And in the fear of dying, he has nothing of his own to cling onto. He has not made riches of his own. His children face the same grinding life he had, he can dimly see the trail of their future, and it leads here as well. He has no hope for his own life, and so, in his fear and his dying, he clings to hope and the Empire. He believes in democracy, free speech, and the right of free men to own a gun if they so choose.
And because there is nothing left for him to hope for in his own life, or his children’s lives, because they are bought and sold by corporate men who will never swing a hammer or torque a wrench, men who will never rebuild an engine, unless it is on the weekends in their garage, he believes in a dream and he believes the soft lies that he has been told.
He believes that this country is good, because it is his country. Because he has owned a small piece of it, and because the heartless bastards at the top have told him he is a good man. And when there is nothing else, he clings to that. That he is right, and good. That his beliefs are not evil, that his prayers fly to something besides an empty sky. Because America might be an Empire, but it is his Empire.
For him, the word Empire itself is not evil. You and I have had the training and the learning to see what lies beyond the smooth veil of that word. We know the excesses of Rome, of Britain and Belgium, but this man does not. He believes because he must. Because otherwise his life will have been lived in the service of a deep and irreconcilable wrong. Because no one can believe that what they love is altogether wrong. Because the word Empire means to him industry and progress. Because he has nothing left to hope for, and hopeless men are the chosen prey of liars, and he has been lied to.
It is easy to hate. And to judge. And I will not canonize John Walton. But I cannot hate him, and I cannot hate those like him. I suppose that I feel for him a deep and lasting sorrow.
John Walton is not a saint. But John Walton, and those like him, is not a fool. He is not evil. He is simply without hope and clinging to something bigger than himself, in hopes that if his own life has been without greater meaning or success, that he has at least been a small cog in something great and beautiful.